Imagine that it’s thirty minutes before your bedtime. The room is dark. You allow your mind to become still, restful. Next, you direct your thoughts and encourage them to wander across the many things you are grateful for — the place you live, the people in your life, the great salad you had for lunch, the vista from your back porch. Now, open your eyes, grab the journal on your nightstand, and write down each positive impression you had.
In roughly ten minutes you have given your brain and body a serious boost.
Thinking, expressing, and writing about what you are grateful for releases three major happy hormones: dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. This surge of neurochemicals is responsible for feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, motivation, pain relief, and an overall sense of well-being. And it’s a simple process that packs a major positive punch.
What is the brain doing and why is gratitude journaling effective?
First, when we focus on what we are grateful for, several parts of our brain light up. Two major areas include the anterior cingulate cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. These areas of the brain play a significant role in our social-emotional processes.
Anterior cingulate cortex - responsible for emotional expression, attention allocation, and mood regulation.
Ventromedial prefrontal cortex - responsible for emotional processing, decision-making, memory self-perception, and social cognition.
Second, when we write down what we have reflected on, learned, or experienced, we involve added parts of our brain, namely those that problem solve and convert information to memory. This is why many professors insist on note-taking. It enhances students' abilities to understand, remember, and better digest the information.
Researched gratitude journal benefits
There are several distinct reactions the brain experiences when engaging in gratitude journaling. They include:
Relief From Depression and Anxiety
When we allow our consciousness to reflect on what we are grateful for an impressive shift occurs in our brain. In one study, ninety-two adults with advanced cancer participated in seven days of mindful gratitude journaling. The result was a significant drop in their anxiety and overall psychological distress. Focusing on gratitude has also been related to fewer depressive symptoms. This is accomplished through positive reframing resulting in a more positive emotional state. In another study comprised of two hundred and one patients with severe forms of depression, keeping a gratitude diary significantly improved their optimism and reduced feelings of hopelessness.
Gratitude journaling has been proven to be an effective tool to support improved mental health. In one study, a group of one hundred and two doctors were assigned to one of three possible groups; a gratitude journal group, a negative-focused group in which they reflected upon bleak elements in their life, and a control group that did nothing at all. The research found that those who journaled what they were grateful for experienced fewer feelings of stress and depressive symptoms compared to the other two groups that were non-effective and indistinct from one another.
Improves Brain Function
In another research group of over four hundred adults, higher levels of gratitude were associated with better cognitive function. Further, elevated levels of gratitude were associated with larger volumes in parts of the brain, namely the right amygdala and left fusiform gyrus. Ultimately, higher levels of gratitude were directly and positively associated with cognitive function, particularly the amygdala, which is involved in processing emotion and memory.
Become More Altruistic
Gratitude journaling has been shown to increase an altruism response in the brain. Researchers compared over thirty women and found that those who kept a gratitude diary had greater activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and nuclear acumbens. These sections of the brain are responsible for emotional processing, decision-making, memory, self-perception, social cognition, as well as reward and pleasure processing. To test the theory that focusing on gratitude improved altruism, the participants were required to give a sum of money to a local food bank. Those who practiced gratitude journaling experienced greater satisfaction when it came time to transfer their funds to the charity.
Improves Physical Health
The health benefits of gratitude journaling are impressive. First, gratitude journaling has been shown to improve overall well-being, optimism, blood pressure, and sleep quality. In a study of twenty-five asthmatics, keeping a gratitude journal even improved their ability to control their symptoms of asthma. Researchers have also found that patients who kept a gratitude journal were more likely to adhere to medical recommendations such as diet, exercise, and stress reduction. As a result, their mental health improved as they reported lower levels of depression, anxiety, and improved levels of optimism.
The benefits of keeping a gratitude journal are not limited to adults. In a study of over one thousand teens, those who expressed gratitude in a journal reported healthier eating behavior over time. They have also learned that early adolescence who express gratitude experience a greater sense of optimism, life satisfaction, and decreased negativity. Thus, this simple practice may be one of the most important tools for adolescence considering the decline in the mental health of this age group.
Increased Ability to Feel Gratitude
Keeping a regular gratitude journal enhances your ability to live in a state of gratitude. When the going gets tough, past experiences of gratitude journaling help individuals move through those difficult moments and more easily reflect on the positive parts of their life.
Methodical research finds that a gratitude journal does indeed increase one’s ongoing level of gratitude. Meaning, that even while you are not journaling at a particular moment, you are able to feel its benefits later. Much like running on the treadmill improves your cardiovascular endurance, allowing you to enjoy rigorous physical tasks such as hiking. Gratitude journaling exercises parts of the brain that make you better able to engage with a sense of positivity when faced with a challenging moment.
So, what is the right way to gratitude journal?
While keeping a gratitude diary is undoubtedly beneficial — as with many things — more is not necessarily better.
Researchers have found that gratitude journaling once or twice per week is more effective than journaling daily. This is because the mind quickly adapts to positive events causing them to no longer become a point of reflection or novelty. We might then come to expect good things to happen to us if we reach this point. The brain is a delicate machine and this is yet another fascinating mechanism it is capable of.
Come With Intention
Engaging with your gratitude journal with a goal in mind is important. Do you want to be happier? More content? Deciding this before you sit down to write can enhance your experience and affect what you get out of it.
Focusing on specific details is an impactful way to make the most of your journaling time. Rather than just filling up ten minutes that you have set aside, bring up specific people or pleasant surprises that have led you to be grateful for what you have.
Get a Special Diary
Purchasing a separate journal in which you strictly keep your reflections of gratitude, can make a positive impact. This journal serves a distinct purpose and is also a place you can turn when you need a reminder on a particularly challenging day.
Where can you buy a gratitude journal?
While spending money on a specific gratitude journal is unnecessary, it may help you get started and stay consistent. This is because you have invested money into a product. This alone better ensures that you will use your new gratitude journal for a distinct purpose and each time you look at it you will be reminded of the importance it holds.
And while any diary will do, these finds go the extra mile to include gratitude journal prompts, potentially giving you the most out of your experience. Each one is different so look carefully at the details of each.
Gratitude Journals for Women
Gratitude Journals for Teens and Children
Gratitude Journals for Men
And while you wait for your special diary, download this free PDF journal page with simple, but powerful gratitude journaling prompts that you can print and use.
So there you have it. All the knowledge and motivation you need to get started on this powerful mental health tool that you can easily incorporate into your week.
Through gratitude journaling, you will reduce anxiety and depression, and increase your physical health, brain function, and altruism. Something we and the world need more of.
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